Whether for a moment or a lifetime, relationships are tricky beasts. The single among us often pine for one, the jilted disavow them and long-term mates struggle to keep them. Despite the blather on daytime talk shows, there is no instruction book; supposed guideposts are more like mirages on the road of life. So how does one make sense of it all? Well if you’re Emma Steinkraus you paint. You document the highs and the lows – the moments where our bodies connect but our hearts struggle with the push and pull of intimacy. You envision moments of warmth and moments of seeming estrangement, not only to make sense of your own relationships, but to create a shining beacon for others. And in Emma’s case, you do so with an emotional clarity and technical precision that belies your true age. On the eve of her first solo show at the Evolve Urban Arts Project, I sat down with Steinkraus to discuss her painting style and learn if she’s solved the mysteries of relationships.
Her sunny Capitol Hill studio, steps away from the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop where she teaches, is filled with examples of her soul-searching. There’s a plethora of visual information to take in, but the first thing you’ll notice is the same couple is featured in each painting. On the surface they appear semi-autobiographical (the protagonists bare a fleeting resemblance to Steinkraus and her partner), but she tells me she doesn’t envision them that way. Rather, it’s a matter of convenience; in reality she sees these figures as anonymous actors staged in a play. Emotions evinced by these “actors” run the gamut from sticky sweet to palpably tense, yet even in tense moments the actors connect physically, as if seeking a resolution to their struggle.
The concept of a stage is apt, because although the background varies, the characters seem to remain remarkably front and center. At first this seems counter-intuitive, given that Steinkraus tells me about her fascination with 15th century Netherlandic paintings, or paintings of “little figures moving in detailed spaces” as she describes them. A century later, these Northern European painters would turn more towards documenting the profane world around them, but in the 15th century the painterly eye was still sacredly raised to the heavens. Steinkraus’ works don’t feel overtly religious to my eye, so I ask her explain how this genre works its way into her modern-day narratives. Steinkraus tells me that, “unlike some contemporary artists, I don’t see my obsessions [as] only possible today,” meaning the quest for personal relationships imbued with meaning is timeless, and artworks created even centuries apart to shed light on this phenomenon can exist contemporaneously. She points out that evidence is right in front of us: visit the National Gallery of Art for example, and you’ll see artworks that span hundreds of years unified in their quest to both define our relationship to each other and our relationship to the world around us.
This confronting of our relationship to nature (with a capital ‘N’) isn’t at first apparent; my eye still focuses on the couple in each work, their emotions working across their faces. Steinkraus advises me to stand back for a moment and take it all in. Once again we’re back to the concept of a stage, but now multiple layers of scenery pop into place. The backgrounds are starkly similar – not in their physical locale (which ranges from forest to mountain) – but in their idealizing of a certain natural landscape whose vital force has been cut off from modern man. Indeed in each of these tableaus, the trappings of urbanity act as stage sets that separate us from nature writ large. Behind the staged actors lies a veritable Eden, though not exactly the Eden portrayed in those centuries-old religious paintings. Steinkraus likens them to “fabricated landscapes” pieced together from photographs and her imagination to envision the natural world we wish we could inhabit. In each work multiple relationships come slowly into view as Steinkraus ponders not just our interpersonal relationships, but our ecological relationships as well.
Take for instance Sundown, Arkansas the largest work in the exhibition clocking in at almost eight feet wide. There is a strong narrative thread through the work, as we watch young lovers walking across the parking lot of a convenience store. Hands are held firmly, yet they look away from one another and there is tension in the young man’s body language. They’re physically linked but perhaps mentally estranged, and their personal interaction mirrors their association with the greater environment around them. Across the sky a beautiful sunset peeks out over a mountain range, the colors a homage to the seminal California artist Ed Ruscha (another lover of fabricated landscapes), yet the couple is cut off from the serenity of the scene by the harsh light of a gas station canopy. Here in the majesty of nature — a place of quiet grandeur — a concrete slab, metal canopy and fluorescent light cut the couple off from the natural world in much the same way as their body language sets them at odds.
A similar situation occurs in Colorado where we see the two lovers in a happier moment engaged in a flirtatious love game. Testing her bounds of trust, the young man has his lover’s eyes covered, as if to surprise her with the view outside. And what a view it is! It’s as if the Farnsworth House has been airlifted from its Illinois forest to a Colorado arroyo (again a moment of fabrication), and only the thin intersection of glass mars the scene. Yes the scene is stunning, but the couple only engages it from the air conditioned comfort of their living room. Again the lovers experience nature “through a screen” (as Steinkraus describes it) rather than inhabit it. Peeling back layers of meaning, there is a subtle juxtaposition at play. The amorous pair is shown at a moment of emotional closeness with each other, yet are in turn mechanically distanced from nature.
If Steinkraus views one type of relationship (to each other or to nature) as more valuable she is mum on the answer. What she does seem to espouse is the notion that a full emotional life requires both and it’s a hard struggle to strike that balance. I wonder aloud if all this searching has led to any answers – has she found the keys to success in relationships? She scoffs at the notion that there is a definitive path or lone set of answers. What she has learned, she tells me, is that relationships are constantly surprising. They take on a life of their own. Their constantly changing boundaries require work to maintain. Most of all, relationships bring value to our lives in direct proportion to the effort we put in to them.
Emma Steinkraus runs March 28th through May 23rd, 2013 at the Evolve Urban Arts Project with an opening reception March 28 from 5:30-8:30pm. For more information, visit their website here.